Search

Game Plan SI huddled with a handful of NFL heavyweights to discuss the state of the game--and where it's headed

Aug. 30, 1999
Aug. 30, 1999

Table of Contents
Aug. 30, 1999

1999 NFL Preview

Game Plan SI huddled with a handful of NFL heavyweights to discuss the state of the game--and where it's headed

When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED got seven pro football heavyweights
together in a New York City conference room last month to
discuss the state and the future of the NFL, the good times
ruled. Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. and Packers general
manager Ron Wolf, who recently had moaned that the league seemed
more concerned with NFL Properties than with blocking and
tackling, were flush with optimism during the 2 1/2-hour
roundtable. Mike Shanahan, coach of the two-time Super Bowl
champion Broncos, wanted to give the commissioner's office more
power. No one said a discouraging word to Fox Sports TV
president David Hill about his network's Simpsonizing of the game.

This is an article from the Aug. 30, 1999 issue Original Layout

We expected at least a little friction between the union boss,
NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, and the
owners' man, commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Yet throughout the
proceedings the two joked with each other as if they were best
of friends.

Only Vikings wideout Cris Carter, a six-time All-Pro, seemed
inclined to stir things up. He aired some of the rank and file's
concerns about the color of the league (he suggested that a
small group of owners is racist) and about the NFL's
substance-abuse program (not tough enough). Here are the
highlights of the discussion, which was moderated by SI senior
writer Peter King.

King: How would you assess the state of pro football?

Tagliabue: I would take it on two levels. I think what you see
on the field is tremendously exciting, a lot of superskilled
athletes playing in a very competitive environment. The second
level would be what has been done with the collective bargaining
agreement, which is allocating the talent fairly, continuing to
have a draft, having a salary cap coupled with the free agency.
We've got a good structure in place.

Ford: The one constant we have is the game. Everything
surrounding it has changed over the years--the economics, the
way we market it--but the game is the same one that my
grandfather and my father watched. The game still appeals to
people today just as it did 50 years ago.

Shanahan: I think we do a great job each year of analyzing the
game. We're never satisfied, saying, "O.K., the NFL is Number 1,
we like where we are."

Hill: Bill's comments are right on the money. In a constantly
changing society, football stays strong. In the broader
entertainment context, I can see it becoming only stronger
because every year we look at a different entertainment
spectrum, with DVD machines, more cable channels, more satellite
channels. Those are all taking eyes from the traditional network
forums, but football stands like a giant in a sea of people.

Carter: The one thing that concerns me is, socially and morally,
we have to continue to check ourselves. The fans view the NFL as
having a certain image, but do we necessarily meet that image?
Is the player the same player that we're marketing to the
public? I don't believe he is.

King: What might prevent the NFL from remaining the premier
sports league?

Upshaw: We went through probably 10 years of unrest to get our
collective bargaining agreement done, and we let the game slip
during that period. Everyone did, the players, the owners. And
the fans sort of got turned off with all the legal battles we
had. We ended that in 1993 with a new agreement. We have
extended it twice. We now have a deal until 2003. What that says
is that the leaders of the game recognize our role, and we also
recognize that the game has to have compromise.

Tagliabue: The NFL has been successful because ownership over
time understood what it took to have a great league. George
Halas came up with the idea of the draft at a time when
competition was not right. Pete Rozelle came along in 1960 and
took control of television for the league, and the owners voted
for the equal sharing of the TV revenue. Gene points to the
labor strife of the '80s as a problem. It was a failure to
recognize the importance of structure and peace. We've gotten
that right in the '90s. A big challenge is that we will get
complacent and not continue to appreciate the structural
elements that have made us successful.

Hill: When I arrived here from London at the end of 1993, I was
terrified to see SPORTS ILLUSTRATED trumpeting the NFL as the
"No Fun League." I thought, What have I gotten myself into? But
what I've seen in the last five years has been that everyone
involved in the NFL has been aware of the image of the game. It
is a fragile entity. If you don't nourish it, the public can
turn its back.

Ford: I worry about teams divorcing themselves from the
communities in which they play. Each club has to reaffirm its
ties to its community because a lot of elements over the last 10
years or so have undermined that.

King: Ron and Mike, from a football standpoint, what worries you?

Carter: Ron better be worried about covering Randy Moss.

Wolf: What concerns me is that there seems to be an effort to
push the football people aside. We don't have a football-only
meeting. We have a league meeting, and it's about TV and other
things. The public-relations people have a meeting about p.r. NFL
Properties has a meeting. The video people have a meeting. Even
these new player-development people have meetings. But we don't
have a football-only meeting for football people.

Tagliabue: We're trying to restructure the owners' meeting
schedule for the reasons Ron suggested.

Shanahan: One of the problems I've got with free agency is, if
you sign a guy to a five-year contract and that guy plays two
years and you know there is no way that you can afford that guy's
salary, you have to wait until June 1 to cut him. You can't look
a guy square in the eyes and say, "We think your game is going
down, but you might be able to go out somewhere else and get a
big contract and play."

King: Why can't you move it to March 1?

Tagliabue: You know why we have this system? Because it's the
best system that we can get a majority to vote for. We've
discussed this for about 10,000 hours, and that's the best we can
come up with.

King: Bill, you've said to me that you go to league meetings and
the last thing that's talked about is the game on the field.

Ford: Actually, having been part of the owners' group now, it's
probably just as well that it's not discussed there. But I do
find it disconcerting that some owners don't look at the product
that they're putting on the field as central to what they're
doing. I come from the auto industry where, regardless of how
much marketing you do, how much advertising and everything else,
you never can lose sight of the fact that you have to put the
best product on the road and the product that the customer is
demanding. Some of the owners, all the tangential things seem
important to them.

King: Like what?

Ford: Like NFL Properties. To some, the game almost seems
incidental.

Hill: I heard a stat the other day that 98 percent of NFL fans
have never been to the grounds, so the only football experience
they get is through television.

Tagliabue: We've had a lot of conversations about this. Should
we force the teams to open up Saturday walk-through practices to
the fans? They do it in the Final Four in basketball. We need to
have more fans touch our game.

Hill: One of the reasons that NASCAR is booming is the
availability of the drivers and the stars. That's vital.

King: There's been a lot of discussion that the networks will
lose money on their current contracts. Is there going to be a
time where the golden goose dies?

Hill: The key thing at the end of this contract or the middle of
the next one is whether the league makes more money if it goes
to cable or pay-per-view. The greatest threat I can see to the
future of football is that it doesn't stay on free TV.

King: Is that on the horizon, Paul?

Tagliabue: Switching from broadcast television to some
subscriber kind of television as the primary way of reaching the
public? Certainly not. The Super Bowl becomes a national holiday
because we have most of the nation interested and ready to watch
it. Now does that mean you have to be static with respect to
television? Absolutely not. As I look into the next decade, two
of the biggest challenges we have are the evolution of the media
and what Cris alluded to: maintaining the respect of our fans.
People want to cheer for people they can respect.

King: Speaking of television, David, what about the blackout
rule? Fox couldn't show four of the Lions' five Sunday home games
last year because the games weren't sold out.

Hill: To me the blackout and doubleheader rules are
antediluvian, from an era when dinosaurs ruled the earth. It's
almost like it's 1961, and there are three networks. In Week 9
last season we had the 49ers at Green Bay in the late game.
Washington, Tampa, Charlotte and Kansas City were all blacked
out from seeing that game because the local teams played at home
at one, and we can only show one game in the home market. And
yes, four of the five Lions games got blacked out. What that
means to Bill is that he can't build his fan base. I would like
to see the blackout and the doubleheader rules thrown out the
window.

Tagliabue: Changing our blackout policy would be a tragic, tragic
mistake for the National Football League and its fans.

King: Why?

Tagliabue: Because the experience of having 60,000 people in a
sold-out stadium is what makes this sport. It's perfectly clear
to me that if you don't sell out games when you're not on
television, you won't sell them out when they are on television.

Hill: I don't think it would make any difference whatsoever.

Tagliabue: A lot more teams will have a lot more games that
aren't sold out. We'll have far fewer season tickets sold.
People will buy individual game tickets and wait to see what the
weather is like and what their team is like in November and
December, and we'll destroy our game. I've thought about this
for 30 years, and I'm not going to change my opinion. The
doubleheader rule, maybe you might convince me to compromise.

Ford: We have an 80,000-seat stadium, the largest in the league
in terms of capacity. I don't think the blackout rule helps us.
I certainly agree with Paul's premise that the stadium
experience is something we can never lose. If we become a studio
sport, we've ruined it. But I think that by being blacked out,
your fans are not seeing your best games because, typically,
teams play better at home. I would like to see, if not a lifting
of the blackout rule, maybe an average attendance kind of thing
so that if you're playing in an 80,000-seat stadium, you're not
penalized.

King: So if you've sold, say, 65,000 tickets, you can lift the
blackout?

Ford: Yeah, something like that. If your fans are watching your
home games, you're going to create more interest. On Sundays fans
in Detroit should be able to plan their week around watching the
Lions. As soon as you're not on, they find other things to do.
That's dangerous.

King: Ron, after seven years, is the salary cap working?

Wolf: If the idea of the salary cap was to bring about that
six-letter word that everyone kind of chokes on, parity, yeah,
then it's working. Because what has happened with the cap is, if
you become good, you can't stay that way. I don't think, though,
there is anything wrong with having a dominant team.

Tagliabue: But last year, for the first time in history, three
teams won at least 14 games. By that measure we have more
dominant teams than we've ever had. I don't think we've got
parity. Under any system you're going to have a cyclical pattern
of success and failure. The draft ultimately is going to produce
such a pattern. This cap system will do the same. It's another
governing mechanism. If you succeed, you can't keep an
inordinate number of players. The up escalator is a lot faster
than it was before. The Falcons are a great example of that.

Wolf: Don't you think, though, Commissioner, that there are all
these head-coaching changes more because of what happened with
Carolina and Jacksonville, with their getting so good so fast,
than because of the salary cap?

Tagliabue: No, I think it's a couple of things. Part of it is
coming back to what Bill Ford said earlier. You have maybe a
smaller percentage of owners who have a deep understanding of the
game. And I think you have so much pressure to win.

Upshaw: We're talking about football in the 21st century, and we
finally recognized it in 1993. How could we go forward with the
only system in sports that held its workers in bondage? The deal
has been great for the game, it's been great for the fans, and
it's been great for the cities. They might have been upset with
Reggie White in Philadelphia for leaving, but Green Bay loved
him and went to the Super Bowl. Under this system you can keep
your own players as long as you pay them.

Wolf: Wait a minute. You're asking us to look into a crystal
ball and see how somebody is going to be two years down the road.

Upshaw: I'm not asking you to do that.

Wolf: Oh, yes, you are. You're saying I can keep any player I
want. The way I keep him is I do what? I sign him with a big
signing bonus and for five years.

Upshaw: Where you came from was where I was, with the Raiders.
You drafted me, and I didn't have a choice. I had to stay with
the Raiders. Didn't matter.

Wolf: That was good for you, too.

Upshaw: I want to decide what's good for me, not you.

Wolf: You would have liked to have had a choice?

Upshaw: That's right. The only choice I had was play or go home,
period.

King: Mike, one interesting thing you've done with the cap is
when you find a guy you like--say, [wideout] Rod Smith--and you
know you're going to want him for a long term, you sign him so
he'll never play for anybody else unless you choose to cut him.
And you give these players enough of a signing bonus that
they'll commit to you. Can that work long term?

Shanahan: Eventually, it's going to catch up with you. When
you're winning and your salaries are escalating, there's a point
where a fourth- or fifth-round draft choice or free agent has to
replace a Pro Bowl player making $3 million. That's the bottom
line. If you stay healthy, it's going to work. If you get
injuries, it won't.

King: Let's discuss the lack of black coaches, general managers
and owners. Shouldn't the NFL at age 80 have better minority
representation, and what can be done?

Upshaw: We're aware that, at least from the players'
perspective, there's not a lot you can do to change what an
owner might do. What you try to do--and I know Paul has worked
to improve those numbers--is improve the opportunities for
coaches.

King: As a black man in a leadership position, do you feel some
outrage about this?

Upshaw: Outrage? I don't know what I could possibly do from my
perspective. Are you saying that the players shouldn't play? Are
you saying that the players should protest? What a player really
wants and what I expect is a quality individual the players are
willing to follow.

Tagliabue: When Colin Powell talks about being a general officer
in the U.S. Army and equal opportunity, he says the first thing
you've got to recognize is you're talking about only so many
positions in a universe that is extraordinarily competitive. So
Mike Shanahan has a unique position; there are only 31 of him.
Only 31 of Ron Wolf. There are very few people who become
general officers in the U.S. Army, not to mention chief of staff
or chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. So the Army point of
view with Colin Powell and other leaders is not to force
outcomes. The last thing you want to do is force someone to
become a general when he doesn't have the talent to lead men.
The last thing you want to do is force someone to become a head
coach when he doesn't have the ability that someone else has to
lead the team. What we've tried to do is to create opportunities
on a playing field that is level. Whether it's Gary Kubiak or
Willie Shaw, he should have the equal opportunity--one being a
white coach, the other being a black coach--to have access to
Bill Ford or any other owner. We've done a lot of things in that
area. In Minnesota an African-American head coach and an
African-American personnel director have put together a
world-class team. In Green Bay, for the first time in the
history of the league, we have an African-American head coach
and two African-American coordinators. We are getting there by
making this an open system in which talent can be recognized. We
have more assistant coaches and coordinators who are minorities
than ever. Now, is that enough? No. But is it progress? Yes.

Carter: I don't believe a black man should be a head coach if
he's not worthy of the position. But I truly believe there is a
group of owners who won't hire a black man as head coach. It's
sad that they would just not hire a black man.

King: Do you think it's the majority?

Carter: No, I think there are a few. Ownership is no different
from the makeup of society. Racism is part of that, and we would
be lying if we thought that wasn't part of it.

King: The NFL is spending $100 million on the development of
youth football programs. Kids are playing a hundred other sports
now as well as football and, in many cases, in place of football.
Is there any worry that there aren't going to be enough players
to support 32 or 40 teams in 2025?

Tagliabue: I have no such worry. Look at the talent coming into
the league--it's phenomenal. We're spending $100 million for two
reasons. Number one, we think we have a great sport, and we want
to make sure that young people have the wherewithal to play it.
The second reason we're spending it, frankly, is that we have it.
It's a wise way to build a business and build a sport.

King: Player behavior. Several teams showed interest in Lawrence
Phillips, who has been in a lot of trouble. Three Jets get
arrested after a bar fight. The Dolphins sign a convicted
cocaine trafficker. Anybody concerned?

Tagliabue: [All the reporting about bad behavior] is sort of a
media phenomenon that happens when there's not much else to write
about. As Cris said earlier, we could do a better job, but we
have 2,500 players coming through the NFL every year. Compared to
society at large, especially young people, we've got good young
men.

Ford: The standards have changed too. In the old days, what
happened with the Jets was not only winked at, but it was also a
boys-will-be-boys kind of thing. Now, I'm not saying that's
right, but there's certainly much more of a focus on these
players. I mean, we have a bar in Detroit, the Lindell A.C. It
used to be legendary for a place to get in a fight on Saturday
night and show up and play on Sunday afternoon. That was part of
the lore of the game.

King: But there always seems to be a mechanism to get the repeat
offender back on the field.

Tagliabue: We have players not in the National Football League
today who are in their second and third years of suspension. So
it's simply not the case that there's always a way to come back.
The flip side of the coin is that we owe it to ourselves and
society owes it to itself to give people a second chance when it
has been earned. Lawrence Phillips has done a heck of a lot this
spring and in the last two years to earn a second chance. In
addition he's going to pay the price [with a substantial fine].

Carter: But the one thing I don't see--and I came through the
substance-abuse program, I was suspended once for 30 days--is the
care given to the players. A lot of the people who are seeing our
athletes are not qualified to deal with substance abuse.
Substance abuse is a disease, and we need to treat it that way.

Upshaw: There is a medical person in Minnesota that you don't
know about.

Carter: I do know him. But who's going to get the athlete to the
medical person? Oh, he's just going to check himself in?

Upshaw: He can.

Carter: Oh, yeah, of course. How many guys have done that?

Upshaw: Cris, we can't sit here in judgment of who is an
alcoholic. We can only treat a person who has a problem that is
so bad that now he's in a situation where there is a public
outcry.

Carter: The system isn't working.

Upshaw: I think it's working as well as we're willing to accept.
I'm not willing to test every player 24 hours a day.

Shanahan: I think I've got a good feel of our team when guys
have a problem, if it's alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. Their
patterns are always the same. They're late, they're always on
the phone. They've got something going on. They've always got a
problem.

King: Officiating. What can the league do to improve it?

Hill: I've covered a heck of a lot of sports, and American
football is probably the most complex. The standard of
officiating, when you compare it to other games around the
world, is remarkably high.

Carter: Pass interference is too penal. That's one penalty that
can really change a game.

Shanahan: I study the game. But last year I didn't know what
pass interference was. I got different interpretations by each
official. This year they rewrote the rules. Now you can look at
the film and you can say, that's pass interference. And you can
explain it to the players. That's a big improvement.

King: Finally, what one thing would you do if you were
commissioner for a day?

Wolf: I would have a memo of understanding signed by owners,
general managers and head coaches saying that they understand and
have read the bylaws and constitution of the National Football
League, that they understand the powers of the commissioner, and
that they have read and understand the tampering rule. And I
would penalize people for cheating under the tampering rule in
free agency. We know those things go on.

Carter: I would cancel the fifth preseason game. I'd also like to
see the regular season have 14 games instead of 16 games.

King: Why?

Carter: Wear and tear on the body. The product would be better
in the playoffs. Especially when you get in situations like
we're in in Minnesota and Green Bay where we're practicing on
artificial turf three days a week, maybe eight, 10 weeks out of
the season.

King: Would you be willing to take less money to play 14 games
than to play 16?

Carter: Yes, but I know they're not going to reduce the schedule.

King: The players wouldn't agree with you either. Mike?

Shanahan: Every year problems exist from the commissioner's
standpoint. I'd like to see him have the power every year to
take one or two items and say, "I believe in this. I don't need
24 votes. I need 16 votes, a simple majority." If it's instant
replay or whatever, fine. Because now if you get seven or eight
teams in a bloc, you can't get anything passed.

Tagliabue (clapping): That's a great idea.

Ford: I'd make the salary cap a hard cap. And I would realign
Green Bay and Minnesota out of my division. Seriously, our
biggest problem is the disconnecting of some teams emotionally
from their fans. The teams that have moved and threatened to move
have really undermined the credibility of the NFL in their towns.
I look at the Patriots, and I think they did all the right
things. They tried to work out their deal in Boston, and the only
thing that was available for them was to do what they did, sign
in Hartford. Ultimately it did work out. But I look at so many
other teams where their first instinct was to say, we're out of
here.

King: Gene, what would you do?

Upshaw: Well, I know Paul too well and I'm too close to him. I
wouldn't want to be commissioner for a day.

King: But if you were and could do one thing, what would it be?

Upshaw: I'd have a majority vote, not three quarters.

King: Anybody have anything else?

Tagliabue: When do we eat?

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURINCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO "I THINK I'VE GOT A GOOD FEEL OF OUR TEAM WHEN GUYS HAVE A PROBLEM. THEIR PATTERNS ARE ALWAYS THE SAME. THEY'RE LATE, ALWAYS ON THE PHONE." SHANAHANCOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON "CHANGING THE BLACKOUT POLICY WOULD BE A TRAGIC, TRAGIC MISTAKE FOR THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE AND ITS FANS." TAGLIABUECOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON "I BELIEVE THERE IS A GROUP OF OWNERS WHO WON'T HIRE A BLACK MAN AS COACH. IT'S SAD THAT THEY WOULD JUST NOT HIRE A BLACK MAN." CARTERCOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON "WE FINALLY RECOGNIZED IT IN 1993. HOW COULD WE GO FORWARD WITH THE ONLY SYSTEM IN SPORTS THAT HELD ITS WORKERS IN BONDAGE?" UPSHAWCOLOR PHOTO: DAWN MEIFERT/FOX TV "I'VE COVERED A HECK OF A LOT OF SPORTS, AND FOOTBALL IS PROBABLY THE MOST COMPLEX. THE STANDARD OF OFFICIATING IS VERY HIGH." HILLCOLOR PHOTO: TOM ALBERT "I FIND IT DISCONCERTING THAT SOME OWNERS DON'T LOOK AT THE PRODUCT ON THE FIELD AS CENTRAL TO WHAT THEY'RE DOING." FORDCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO "IF THE IDEA OF THE SALARY CAP WAS TO BRING ABOUT THAT SIX-LETTER WORD, 'PARITY,' THEN, YEAH, IT'S WORKING." WOLF